On God, Santa Claus, and a Truly Scientific Approach to Faith


On the last day of class in one of my sections of Art and Catholicism, after we covered the necessary questions regarding the upcoming final exam, a student asked why I believed in God.

I began by suggesting that we needed a few weeks if we were serious about working through the issues involved before giving a brief response. The class was a bit too restless to tolerate a long discussion on such a topic on the last day, and I was tired. So I gave a version of the "Because-God's-existence-best-explains-this-and-that" answer, focusing on beauty and the experience of love. It wasn't a bad answer, but, like most answers of this sort, it would convince no one who wasn't already convinced. Had I more time, I could have expanded it, since I am convinced that Christianity can address more fruitfully than any other religion or philosophy two key features of our world, first, the reality of suffering and the widespread conviction that such suffering is somehow not what we should expect, and secondly, the reality of goodness and beauty.

Only Christianity, with its elaboration of both creation and original sin can make consistent sense of both Mother Teresa and Joseph Stalin, of children wallowing in abject poverty and the beauties of the Adagio of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Belief not just in 'God', but in the God and Father of Jesus Christ, son of Mary, makes the best sense of all this and more.

Yet even had I developed this line of thought with greater depth and eloquence, I suspect I would have remained as unsatisfied as my student likely would have been. Such reasoning, even when it scales higher heights, is insufficient, even if necessary as a point of departure. I have always been a little too enamored with the clever banter associated with writers who battle it out with the skeptics and cynics, and too ready to rush into the fray when fellows like Richard Dawkins and his cohort of new atheists fire their latest missile at us believers. I do accept the need to engage our critics, even those who are not well prepared to argue intelligently. As Pascal noted, we should and can meet the attacks on our belief, even as we realize the limitations of our best defenses. And here's where Santa Claus comes in, and why I wish I had remembered him that last day of class.

It isn't rare for atheist writers to compare belief in God with belief in some sort of fictional character, whether it be the flying spaghetti monster Dawkins invokes or Santa Claus. "How does your faith in this Hebrew sky-deity differ from other nonexistent entities?" we hear. I've never understood the appeal of such a comparison, probably because I have never met anyone not under 10 or 11 years old who actually believes in Santa Claus. When atheists can demonstrate the existence of intelligent adults who, after careful study, discussion, and consideration convert to belief in a man who resides at the North Pole and delivers gifts to people throughout the world in the space of a few hours every December 24, I'll take their analogy more seriously. But listening to Dawkins etc. ramble on about God is like listening to a clever undergraduate breathlessly explain how, after years of research and in the face of massive pressure from a believing public, he has established that no one in a red suit, employing elves and riding flying reindeer, lives at the North Pole. My response to that student would be, "Who exactly are you trying to refute?" Likewise with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, whomever. "Who actually believes," I think it fair to ask, based on the grade-school view of God they seem to believe folks like me worship, "in the God you are attacking? Have you ever met an actual religious believer of any kind who thinks you are describing their God?" Probably not, as they cash in on the worst stereotypes imaginable, all in the promise of providing an intelligent and credible refutation of belief in God. This last point is important, and recalls what David Bentley Hart wrote in a review of Daniel Dennett's attempt to write intelligently on why God doesn't exist and to provide a "scientific" account of religious belief:

"If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly – purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor – begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not."

If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within.

It is also on this point that I wish I had engaged my student, for a discussion of Santa Claus and belief in God provides a neat entry point to a more substantial issue, that of how we frame our discussion in the first place. I wonder if he, like Dennett, and like so many others who write on these matters, would accept a sloppy methodology when considering the claims of believers, one that reflects an inadequate understanding of the scientific method along with what Pascal meant by the limits of reason. To study something "scientifically" means, among other things, that one adopts a method of investigation that is appropriate to the nature of the object of investigation.

I suppose I could, like my fictional undergraduate, establish on scientific grounds that there is no Santa Claus. Or, at least that the Santa of popular imagining likely doesn't exist. All night vigils near chimneys, doors, windows, and other assorted entry points into homes, especially those with young children; careful searches at the top of the globe; extensive use of radar technology on Christmas Eve; and, most importantly, interviews with parents and others suspected of giving gifts attributed to Santa. Much more as well, if need be, though I suspect the interviews would finish Santa off. This approach makes sense because of the supposed nature of Santa Claus. He is never treated as anything but a physical being, thoroughly rooted in the same material world we all inhabit. He lives in a real house, so it goes, wears real clothes, eats real cookies, and does many other things we all do (apart from the airborne sled), without anything from the mythology suggesting any of it is illusory or that he is in actuality some kind of spirit or apparition. He is, in other words, capable of what we call scientific investigation. We can track down the guy if we try hard enough.

No such method exists with God, unless we are willing to ignore completely what believers say about him, akin to trying to disprove Santa Claus by searching for his workshop in Antarctica. Which, of course, is what many critics do, attacking our belief in a God of their own imagining. It's almost obscene to hear a biblically-illiterate writer like Dawkins thunder his rage at what he calls the misogynistic, homophobic, war-mongering God of the Old Testament. "Well, yes, Richard," he must hear some of us say from the back row, "we do in fact worship such a harsh, hateful Deity." The serious critic, on the other hand, will first listen to our account of God before going after him. And he will launch an appropriate critique, one which takes seriously what believers say about how they have come to know this God. Which is why Hart can say to Dennett, even if with tongue-in-cheek, "Pray, Dr. Dennett." For if the God of Christianity does exist, and is even remotely anything like what believers have described and claimed to have experienced in often life-changing ways, then the most scientifically plausible approach will include prayer as a central element of one's inquiry.

This is what I would like my student to think about. Though I would have to add that the prayer must come from a genuine desire to know God, and not simply to prove a point or satisfy some intellectual curiosity. But humility is just as difficult to assume in the self-assured critic as is an accurate conception of the God they don't believe in. George Bernanos is on point here, as his haggard country priest laments that "It would be far easier to satisfy a geometrical and moralistic God", a God who respects and plays by the rules of our logic. The hidden God Pascal writes about always refuses to play according to our rules of disclosure, the rules endorsed by critics like Dennett and Dawkins, and this can be met with differing responses. The Christian faithful are all called to yield to the logic of the incarnate Word, resisting the temptation to recreate God in their own image and force him to be predictable, "fair." Some are more successful than others; some live their lives as if they believe at every moment that the poor in spirit are the blessed ones, that only in dying to self on the cross Christ hands to us will we find life. This is the path of humility, and it is always an uncertain one filled with shocks and surprises.

Some can not accept this uncertainty. The Grand Inquisitor of Ivan Karamazov, scolding Christ for being so enigmatic and rejecting the idea that his God is good, speaks for them:

"And then, instead of giving clear-cut rules that would have set men's consciences at rest once and for all, you put forward things that are unfamiliar, puzzling, and uncertain. . .. By so doing you acted as if you did not love mankind."

"Couldn't God have made things easier for us?" is hardly an unusual question, whether we're talking about proofs for his existence or guidance in our daily lives, and I often hear this question, explicitly and in the echoes of comments and questions from students. Nor is it an unfair one. It can, however, reflect pride, despair, or a measure of both. For example, this is from the late Norwood Russell Hanson in his essay "What I Don't Believe." It is, he claimed, unreasonable to believe that God exists, as there isn't enough evidence to warrant such a conclusion. What would qualify as good evidence?

"Suppose . . . that on next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls; leaves drop from trees; the earth heaves and buckles; buildings topple and towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie, silvery light. Just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open – the clouds pull apart – revealing an unbelievably immense and Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays across the features of his Michaelangeloid face. He then points down – at me! – and exclaims, for every man, woman and child to hear "I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, N.R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist."

"Does the loving bride," Soren Kierkegaard asked, "in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and well? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that he exists?"

Such a display, Hanson admits, would do the trick; he would surrender his unbelief in the face of such a remarkable event and believe that God does in fact exist.

Really? "How perfectly geometrical!" one can hear Bernanos' priest saying. And how perfectly delusional. "I have 5 brothers; let some one warn them, Father Abraham, lest they also come into this place of torment," said the rich man in Luke 16 as he suffered the torments reserved for the unjust.

"They have Moses and the prophets," Abraham replied. "Let them hear them."

"If only someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." Or, let the skies rip open, a Zeus-like figure speak, someone turn stones into bread or leap off the Temple and be saved by angels, etc.

"If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead." Let's not pretend this is nothing but an intellectual puzzle, "as if reason were the only way we could learn" (Pascal) and the will has nothing to do with our capacity to believe. "Give alms," Hopkins told the poet Robert Bridges when asked about how to believe. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. And the lover demands no impressive displays or experimental results: "Does the loving bride," Soren Kierkegaard asked, "in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and well? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that he exists?"

What would my student say to all this, I wonder? Would he smirk at my call to pray, at my insistence that he refuse to treat God as Santa Claus in terms of how to look for him? At the very least, I hope he would realize that his question is serious enough to require his time, patience, and effort in seeking an answer.




Anthony DiStefano. "On God, Santa Claus, and a Truly Scientific Approach to Faith." Emeth Society Musings (December, 2011).

Reprinted by permission of the author, Anthony DiStefano. See the original article here.


Anthony DiStefano teaches theology at Xavier College Preparatory, an all girls Catholic high school in Phoenix, AZ. He is co-founder of Emeth Society, a book and film society promoting Catholic culture in the Diocese of Phoenix and a board member of Catholic Phoenix, a lay organization whose mission is to nurture the moral, intellectual, and cultural lives of Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix. Anthony received his BA in English Literature from Arizona State University his MA in Religious Studies from Western Kentucky University, and didn't quite manage to finish his PhD dissertation in Theology from Marquette University.

Copyright © 2011 Anthony DiStefano

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